12/01/2012 04:42 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2013

Information Is Power, But Is it Powerful Enough to Halt Climate Change?

In a world where almost one billion people are chronically hungry and the current and future state of food security is beset by challenges such as climate change, knowledge and information are powerful. Powerful in terms of understanding the problems, in terms of deriving solutions and in terms of advocating where, how and when decision makers need to act.

A new briefing paper written to complement Sir Gordon Conway's book One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?, presents an array of often unsettling facts and figures that outline the challenges to and opportunities for tackling global food insecurity. One fact, for instance, states that in a survey of 59 sub-Saharan African countries, 33 were classified as highly or moderately highly vulnerable to climate change, a real and growing threat to food production in developing countries.

Facts point to agriculture as being both a victim and culprit of climate change: parts of Africa and India are projected to suffer a 30 percent decline in food production on one hand, while global greenhouse gas emissions generated by the agricultural sector account for 10 percent to 12 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, equalling 5.1 to 6.1 Gigatons of CO2 equivalent in 2005, on the other. Agriculture's contribution to climate change increases to 30 percent when emissions from agricultural fuel use, fertiliser production and land use change are included. Agriculture's share in global GDP, however, is only around 4 percent.

Nevertheless, agriculture can also contribute significantly to mitigating or halting climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that if the price of carbon is high and there are no economic or other barriers, agricultural emissions could be reduced or offset by 5,500 to 6,000 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year by 2030. We also know where such mitigation activities could have the most impact: 70 percent of the potential originates from developing countries. And the type of mitigation activity that would have the most impact: 89 percent of the potential is linked to soil carbon sequestration.

Knowledge and communication of such facts would, conceivably, galvanize decision and policy makers to act. Yet the proven dangers of failing to safeguard food production against climate are yet to bring about transformative action. In 2006 the Stern Review, a much publicized document, stated that without action, the overall costs of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5 percent of global GDP each year. The estimated annual cost of achieving stabilisation between 500 and 550ppm CO2 equivalent, currently at just over 400ppm, is 2 percent of GDP.

Indeed it is estimated that to offset the negative impacts of climate change, an additional investment of at least $7 billion per year is needed. International donor investment in adaptation for developing countries, however, currently stands at $150 to $300 million a year, falling vastly short of the tens of billions required.

This begs the question, why hasn't more been done to tackle climate change through agriculture?

Bringing agriculture into the discussions held every year around the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has long been a priority for agricultural development and policy organisations such as the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN).

At this year's Conference of the Parties (COP 18) held in Doha, Qatar from November 26th to December 7th, more than 50 nations will attend Agriculture, Landscapes and Livelihoods Day 5: Solutions for People in Drylands and Beyond, which will discuss food security and sustainable agriculture methods. While agriculture has featured heavily in side-event discussions in the past, progress in incorporating agriculture into a new COP work-stream has, as yet, been unsuccessful. There is, however, some good news. At COP 18, for the first time, agriculture is to be discussed as part of the official agenda.

There are a variety of reasons why agriculture has been a controversial inclusion. Fears that binding agreements could be used as trade barriers; that financial resources would most likely be directed to mitigation despite the dire need for adaptation in developing countries; and that countries with large agricultural emissions could set up international market-based mechanisms as a means of offsetting their emissions in other parts of the world. Adding to this are the difficulties around monitoring and measuring climate change mitigation activities across farms, and designing and implementing incentives for farmers to adopt adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Despite these complications we do have the knowledge, expertise and technologies to both tackle climate change through agriculture, and protect agriculture from climate change. We also know from the World Trade Organization's Doha Round -- discussions centred on reaching a global trade agreement -- that countries which fail to cooperate, also fail to make any progress. What we need now is coordinated political will, responsible governance and strong leadership to ensure we face and solve these difficulties.

A recent BBC documentary on the Joy of Stats argues, "armed with stats we can take control of our lives, hold our rulers to account and see the world as it really is". The public, NGOs and global stakeholders, in the fight against climate change and food insecurity, must use these hard-hitting statistics to persuade those in power to turn information to harmonised action.

To arm yourself with more facts, figures and statistics around food security, the briefing paper outlines a series of facts and figures related to Gordon Conway's new book,One Billion Hungry: Can We Feed the World?